Part 3 of the Pilling Report is intended as a reflection on ‘the evidence’ adduced in Part 2, and the third section is
Countering prejudice and homophobia
In paragraph 320 it refers to homophobia as a ‘vexed’ term, hinting, I think, at its alleged use to silence those who disagree with LGB&T equality. As I have said already, and as the Report admits, it is difficult for the working party to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of homophobia (some straight people have done so by declaring themselves to be gay in situations where they were unknown, and observing if they were treated any differently). What the Report is certain of is ‘that the hatred, prejudice and exclusions experienced by LGBT people continue and are utterly contrary to Christ’s command that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.’
There is special pleading though in the suggestion that ‘because the Church’s approach to sexual ethics is not framed in terms which are identical to the predominant cultural viewpoint and are often misunderstood, it is important for the Church to make its stance absolutely explicit.’ However, there are various cultural viewpoints in our society, including homophobic ones. Currently, there are legal protections in place for LGB&T people: the Church has almost always negotiated exemptions from them. If the Church’s teaching and practice has been assumed to be homophobic it is hardly surprising, especially if the connection between that teaching and Christ’s command to love our neighbour is hard to discern.
That Church discussion of sexuality has failed to reflect Christ’s own teaching is acknowledged, but then we are told, at paragraph 322, ‘This is not to suggest that the Church must always adopt the language and values of secular society or accept uncritically the views and culture of any group on its own terms because it is a minority which has suffered the prejudices of a majority.’ True, but Christ’s ministry in the gospels and the Church’s practice across the ages has demonstrated compassion and concern for those who are marginalised. This is part of the Christian’s DNA and people are rightly troubled and perplexed when it appears to be lacking.
I would have welcomed a firmer repudiation of homophobia and a call for repentance by the Church at this point. It comes later at recommendation 5 (page 102) though it is still the Church repenting for ‘homophobic attitudes it has failed to rebuke’ rather than its own homophobia. At this point the Church’s failure is met with the – much softer – call to greater listening (paragraph 323). The Report though does acknowledge the contrast between Christians’ claims that they are marginalised and the prejudice experienced by lesbian and gay people, as well as the power imbalance arising from ‘the long history of Christianity’s dominant position in wider culture’ (paragraph 324).
Intemperate or careless talk is inappropriate for another reason: ‘we cannot fail to be aware that Anglican Christians in some countries have been subject to violence and intimidation because of others’ perceptions about what Anglicans believe about homosexuality.’ This is true, but nor can we condone homophobia in one country on the ground that challenging it might insight attacks on Christians in another. Both are equally abhorrent.
Paragraph 327 states, somewhat late in the day, that
‘The debate within the Church focuses on divine and human love. What does a loving creator God ask of his people? What does the love of Christ mean for fallen humanity? What does it mean to love selflessly in our human relationships and in the communities we inhabit?
These are questions that the Report itself should be trying to address. It continues
‘All sides in the debate have, at times, lost sight of that focus on love or allowed it to be obscured in the way we speak to one another.’
Perhaps, but the next suggestion is a step too far:
‘But it remains that, where that imperative of love is being faithfully and prayerfully pursued, it is inappropriate to apply the term ‘homophobic’ to the conclusions which may be drawn, even if they are interpreted by some as scandalous or offensive.’
In other words, I can condemn you to hell then for your lifestyle – this is said regularly, apparently, by their ‘Christian’ cleaner to friends of mine – if I do so lovingly and with prayerful intent. No, it is simply not possible to excuse people in this way if others perceive their words as scandalous or offensive. In those circumstances, as with my friends’ cleaner, (though I doubt that she ever thinks about this as she irons their shirts), enduring contact or relationship depends on the goodwill of the person you have offended. Amazingly – and God’s call seems to be the only explanation – the Church of England can depend on the goodwill of its many LGB&T parishioners and clergy, but it ought not to be taken for granted.
The final paragraph of this section, 328, contains a similar sleight of hand, moving from the honouring of the call to celibacy, whether heterosexual and homosexual, and its need of support, to the claim that
‘Neither Christians who experience same sex attraction and who seek support in living according to the teaching of the Church as they understand it, nor the organizations and individuals who offer that support, should be labelled “homophobic”.’
Not in the abstract, obviously, but each case, surely, would have to be taken on its merits, depending upon what the person or organisation did and said.
Science, society and demographics
The message here (paragraphs 329-330) is that the scientific evidence (for the causes of homosexuality?) are inconclusive and so unable to determine the moral arguments (which are?), but the working party ‘have been committed as a group to taking the scientific evidence seriously and we commend this approach to the whole church’ (paragraph 331), which sounds slightly inconsistent. Scientific method seems to provide a handy justification (paragraph 334) for maintaining the status quo: ‘the teaching of the Church, like a thesis in scientific enquiry, stands until the evidence contradicting it is sufficient to change it.’ But science, as the Report notes, proceeds by the testing of hypotheses, and what is needed now, in relation to LGB&T people, is precisely a working hypothesis that will effectively demonstrate that the radical, unconditional nature of God’s love for them is recognised by the Church.
The Report’s reflections on the evidence from recent opinion polls concludes (paragraph 338) that ‘the emerging picture is one of the Church, at least in its official teaching, being increasingly out of step with wider society.’ This is discussed in terms of God’s action in the world and the Church’s mission. With regard to the first of these it declares,
‘We believe that God’s grace is mediated, not solely through the institutional church, but by God’s presence before us in the world and his continuing activity in the Holy Spirit which is not confined to working through Christians.’
This was unclear earlier in the Report, though I am unconvinced that it maintains this perspective overall, and once again the current rate of social change is the reason offered for not considering doctrinal change (paragraph 334).
Reflecting missiologically, the Report suggests (paragraph 348) that
‘The Church needs to think afresh how its traditional teaching on sexuality can commend itself to a culture which is increasingly relaxed about same sex relationships, or whether the teaching itself does not sufficiently represent the gospel imperative and must be refreshed by new insights.’
It might have been helpful if the working party had started to address those questions, given the rate at which social attitudes are changing. Lack of consensus has been the stated reason for maintaining the church’s doctrine, but paragraph 349 suggests another: ‘the debate needs more time to develop’, and the next paragraph even speculates that a majority in the Church of England might be ready for change, and that it could be put to the dioceses, as the women bishops legislation has been, as well as to General Synod.
The degree to which the present teaching – in the form of Issues in human sexuality – has been imposed on clergy is acknowledged when the Report affirms that ‘it is important for alternative views to be explored openly as part of an ongoing process of discernment. As leaders in discerning the gospel message for our culture, it is right that those with teaching authority should be able to participate openly and honestly in that debate.’